April 29, 2016

NM Auditor, HSD launch probes into SNAP fraud allegations

Andy Lyman

State Auditor Tim Keller at a press conference.

State Auditor Tim Keller announced Friday an investigation by his office into allegations that the state instructed employees to commit fraud on federal food stamp applications.

Keller wrote on Twitter that he “has opened a case to look into the allegations of food assistance application fraud by HSD.”

A spokeswoman for the state auditor said he opened the case after learning about the allegations that came up in federal court.

The news came one day after five Human Services Department employees testified that the department instructed them to falsify emergency applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

HSD officials wanted employees to add fake assets to several emergency SNAP to cut down the department’s high numbers of overdue emergency applications, according to the multiple testimonies. Federal law requires those who qualify for emergency SNAP benefits to receive benefits within seven days of applying.

NM Political Report sent an email and left a voicemail with HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison; we’ll update this post if he responds.

In an internal email sent today to HSD employees and obtained by NM Political Report, department Secretary Brent Earnest said his department is itself opening an internal investigation into the allegations.

“As many of you already know, several serious and concerning allegations have been leveled against our department,” Earnest writes in the email. “We take any allegations of misconduct very seriously and will launch an internal investigation to look into these matters.”

Earnest directed HSD employees with information about “similar allegations” to the department’s Office of the Inspector General. He directed “other questions and concerns” to the department’s human resources office.

“While these allegations are troubling, I do not believe they are representative of the thousands of HSD employees who do work every day to help New Mexicans in need,” Earnest writes.

Earlier this week, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, which represents HSD employees, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking the federal government to open an investigation into the state department’s “systemic errors” in administrating SNAP benefits.

“Workers report that there is a statewide policy and practice of adding false asset information to casefiles not processed timely for SNAP, thereby preventing them from appearing untimely in data reported to the USDA,” Connie Derr, executive director of AFSCME Council 18, wrote to USDA Southwest Regional Director Bill Ludwig.

Derr’s letter continues: “Managers and supervisors have a pattern and practice of either adding asset information that should be counted as income or simply adding assets with no basis in the casefile whatsoever. Workers report that the addition of assets makes the case appear that it is not eligible for expedited processing, even though the family did not report assets on the original application or at any time thereafter.”

Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party released a statement accusing Gov. Susana Martinez of having “a long history of abusing power to the detriment of New Mexico’s most vulnerable residents.” HSD is part of Martinez’s administration.

“Falsifying documents is fraud, and it’s disturbing to know this is happening in our state,” Democratic Party of New Mexico Executive Director Joe Kabourek said in the statement.

NM Political Report sent an email and left a voicemail with Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez; we’ll update this post if he responds.

HSD notably levelled allegations of Medicaid fraud against 15 state behavioral health providers in 2013, all of whom shut down after the department cut state and federal funds to them. The state Attorney General’s Office has since cleared all 15 providers of wrongdoing.

Three of the five Arizona-based companies that replaced the 15 state providers three years ago have left or will leave New Mexico by July.

Updated: Added information about AFSCME’s letter to USDA. 

Read Brent Earnest’s email to HSD employees below:

Earnest Email by New Mexico Political Report